Two thousand miles of sky

If you really want to get away from it all, visit remote Easter Island, a drop in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It's also home to the world's most recognisable sculptures. Mark Rowe has never felt so lonely

There is a way to see the curvature of the earth that does not require £14m to buy your way into orbit with a team of Russian cosmonauts. Head for Easter Island and climb up to the rim of the 400m-high Rano Kau volcano. With the weather in your favour, the gossamer-thin horizon will frame a 360-degree view of an emptiness of blue, bending away, barely perceptibly, in every direction.

There is a way to see the curvature of the earth that does not require £14m to buy your way into orbit with a team of Russian cosmonauts. Head for Easter Island and climb up to the rim of the 400m-high Rano Kau volcano. With the weather in your favour, the gossamer-thin horizon will frame a 360-degree view of an emptiness of blue, bending away, barely perceptibly, in every direction.

Easter Island is little more than a raised pebble in our largest ocean. Chile is 2,200 miles to the east; the same distance westwards lies Tahiti, itself in the middle of nowhere. Pitcairn Island, the last redoubt of the Bounty mutineers, is your closest inhabited island, 1,200 miles away across the Pacific. The night of our arrival we sat on our hotel balcony with a beer and heard the roar of our plane departing. Then, suddenly, silence. No more flights for three days. Isolation and immensity on this scale is truly disconcerting.

Yet it is the eerie atmosphere that draws people to Easter Island. Most have been bewitched by what are perhaps the world's most instantly recognisable sculptures. For right here, right in the belly button of the Pacific Ocean, the ancient islanders decided to pass the time of day with a monolithic-statue cult of staggering proportions, almost certainly unique in the history of mankind.

For around 600 years, up to the 15th century, the islanders carved statues, or moai, out of the Rano Raraku volcano. They often reached 20ft or more in height. The biggest, 71ft high and weighing 145 tonnes, was never transported. Each differed slightly from the next, though all were built to the same template: tall and thin, the torso cut off at the waist, long spindly hands resting over the stomachs, angular features and long ears. With prodigious effort the moai were moved and raised to stand guard around the island. There are nearly 900, on an island roughly the size of the Isle of Wight.

Easter Island gets it name from the first sighting by anyone from the Western world in 1722, by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, on Easter Sunday. The locals call the place, themselves and their language, Rapa Nui. It is barely 15 miles long and six miles across at its widest point. With its green expanses, woodlands and hillocks, the landscape recalls Somerset around Glastonbury Tor. The volcanoes at either end of the island are wonders of great beauty, fringed with reeds and mosses and fire-blackened scrub.

There are excellent guided tours of the major sites but, infuriatingly, those running them refuse to stagger their visits, which means you will be at a row of moai in tow with half a dozen mini buses. Hiring a car enables re-visits in the appropriate solitude. The moai that never made it down the hill from the quarry at Rano Raraku, all 397 of them, are perhaps most striking, buried up to their midriffs in the accumulation of centuries of wind-blown sand and soil. They teeter over you and yet can go as deep again into the earth. With their pursed lips and lop-sided tilts they take on the guise of academics nodding in agreement. It is a wonder they don't have pipes hanging out of their mouths.

Many of the mysteries of their provenance that puzzled Western archaeologists and anthropologists have now been resolved. The late Thor Heyerdahl, who first brought his beloved moai to the world's attention, took to the grave his belief in a link to South America but it is now widely accepted that Rapa Nui marks the easternmost point of the great migrations across the Pacific. We know, more or less, the purpose of the moai. Rapa Nui was once peopled with dozens of villages. Towards the end of their lives village elders commissioned likenesses to be carved out of the soft volcanic tuff of Rano Raraku (two statues were carved in case one broke in transit). These were then transported and placed facing inwards, guarding the village on a raised platform, or ahu, under which the chiefs were buried. Over the centuries the carving became increasingly sophisticated, the figures ever larger and, as things got well and truly out of hand. Some acquired enormous red top-knots made of scoria which are thought to have represented hair. But vast amounts of wood were required to move them. In a tale that seems to hold up a mirror to our own society, the demand was unsustainable; there were fewer trees for replacement canoes with which to go fishing and fights broke out over dwindling resources.

The cult came to a juddering halt, the moai were toppled and today most of them lie exactly where they fell, sprinkled around the dramatic coastal margins of the island, face down in positions of humiliation, mournful and full of pathos, rather like sets of discarded cuddly toys. International projects have restored some to their original positions. The extraordinary line of 15 moai at Tongariki is the largest in number, on an ahu 200m long. Viewing them from behind, one had the irreverent thought that they resembled a team of rugby players lined up in the gents. Elsewhere coral eyes, another original feature, have been implanted, recreating a beady, all-seeing appearance.

And yet, as the moai fell, the islanders latched on to another cult, this time of the mysterious birdman, by which means annual bragging rights were determined. Villagers would tumble down the slopes of Rano Kau into the sea and swim to an islet to collect the first seasonal egg of the sooty tern. Their legacy is some extraordinary rock art at the rim of the volcano. There are echoes of Lord of the Flies in all of this; as though the gods used Rapa Nui as part of a social experiment, a control group to study how a society evolves when left to its own devices and deprived of the fresh perspectives brought by external contact.

Many visitors are disappointed by Easter Island. There is a melancholic air as if the islanders feel they got a raw deal when fate handed out locations across the Pacific. In the 19th century, press gangs seeking slave labour for the mines of Bolivia all but extirpated the population with the consequence that today everyone can trace their ancestry back to the 30 or so couples who survived. Memories are still vivid of the floggings meted out by the Chilean navy in the 1950s that drove many Rapa Nuis to take to double-hulled canoes like their forefathers and head over the edge of that curve of the earth.

The population of 2,000 is almost wholly enclosed in the one settlement, Hanga Roa, a village of sleepy ordinariness, poorly stocked shops and an unexpectedly unprosperous feel. You can buy sweet potato crisps but mainland tastes predominate; French colonisers took the baguette to Tahiti, the Chileans have brought laminated cheese slices and frozen broiler chickens air freighted across the Pacific. The wheelie bin has made it here, too.

Yet the Rapa Nui refuse to conform to some pre-conceived Western stereotype. There is a patronising Western conceit that argues islanders such as these should smile and say thank you for flying half way around the world to bestow on them your tourist dollars – on which they are entirely reliant. Well, too bad. Instead, you will find a pride in their Polynesian ancestry that has for the most part been lost in places such as Hawaii and Bora Bora.

The moai are still taken extremely seriously and the islanders revere other spirits, known as aku aku, all goggle-eyed and protruding ribs, whose wood carvings are placed on many doorsteps at night. There is local pressure for a university to be built and there is a resurgence in the oral literature of the Rapa Nui language. Lan Chile, the only airline that flies here, would like to put on a daily service while the Chilean government wants to build a huge port for cruise ships; the islanders want neither.

The imprint of Chilean culture is resisted in small but meaningful ways. Wood carvings in the church bear motifs of the aku aku spirits while a revival in dance has become a means of asserting the islanders' Polynesian rather than South American heritage. There are stories of elderly couples, aware of their impending death, who head for remote caves to die without the burial service of what they view as an imposed belief system.

One day a gruff taxi driver dropped us at Anakena, a palm-fringed beach where in 1955 Thor Heyerdhal and 12 islanders took 18 days to raise a single moai by piling stones up behind it. We followed the 10-mile coastline back to Hanga Roa and checked our progress, Ordnance Survey fashion, against ahus marked on the map. The path would climb high above the shore then drop down. The waves here had travelled unhindered for more than 2,000 miles before thumping into the cliffs with an echo that brought back that sense of remoteness. At that moment, at least five miles' walk from the next human being and with no mobile phone, we had less connection with the rest of the planet than the rich businessman who pays his way with the cosmonauts.

The Facts

Getting there

Mark Rowe organised his trip through Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk). A five-day, four-night package on Easter island starts at £441 per person, based on two sharing, including four nights' b&b, transfers, land transport and excursions. Flight costs are additional. Through flights from the UK to Easter Island, via Santiago, cost from £967 per person including taxes, with LanChile (0800-917 0572 ; www.lanchile.com).

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